Artificial Wombs & Virtual Childhood

About a month ago, transhumanist Zoltan Istvan – who created a bit of an unrelated bruhahaha in my Feedly – wrote about artificial wombs, saying they were inevitable and would do a lot of good for society:

Of all the transhumanist technologies coming in the near future, one stands out that both fascinates and perplexes people. It’s called ectogenesis: raising a fetus outside the human body in an artificial womb.

It has the possibility to change one of the most fundamental acts that most humans experience: the way people go about having children. It also has the possibility to change the way we view the female body and the field of reproductive rights.

Naturally, it’s a social and political minefield.

The whole article is a fascinating read. I don’t really have a stance one way or another towards it. I think many women would be happy to have their biological offspring be raised outside their body, if only because of the physical strain that takes place. Others (both women and men) probably would find that very notion offensive and decline to partake. Whatever. But I’m not here to really critique Zoltan’s particular view of transhumanism (other than I think his timetable is way too short.)

It was just, looking at this article, it made me think of another idea of transhumanism that has long bounced around inside of my brain. In a fictional form, it would go somewhat like this:

Ectogenesis was the first step towards radical reproductive liberation. The first two generations of ectogenesis children – derogatorily called the “pod people” by many – suffered social ostracism and persecution, but within fifty years roughly two thirds of all children were born in pods and the stigma disappeared.

But it wasn’t enough.

Ectogenesis was still time consuming, and you still had to raise the child after decanting. Studies in virtual brain emulation had long ago bore fruit, to the point where a identical simulation was possible. Scientists began a brave experiment where they took the genetic samples of two volunteers, combined it to form a zygote in a pod, then simultaneously created a virtual copy in a virtual environment. The virtual brain developed while the physical brain was not allowed to develop consciousness; the virtual brain was then, through nanoprobes, downloaded into the fetus after nine months of development.

That didn’t really change anything, but it did prove that virtual brain development was possible. The next generation of experiments went farther. Incorporating growth acceleration technology that had originally been perfected for orbital agriculture habitats, scientists were able to take the zygote straight to twenty years of age in only nine months. They also sped up the virtual environment, creating an entire society (complete with eidolons of the parents and relatives and real world people) that would be an effective “proving ground” for the growing mind. When all was said and done, the body and mind that emerged from the pod was chronologically only nine months old, but had twenty years of subjective physical and mental experience, and was ready to enjoy real life society immediately.

Of course, there were criticisms. More biological, “natural” humans saw this as too much of an aberration; the virtuals scoffed at the notion anyone would want to live in meatspace. Yet over time this mixed virtual-biological lifestyle took hold. Within six generations, roughly 85% of all humans had spent their first twenty subjective years in a virtual simulation before being downloaded into a specially grown body, derived from the genetic samples of two or more “parents.”

However, now the definition of human had changed dramatically. No longer were the “naturals” considered “natural,” they were merely “full-stack biologics” living mostly in segregated neighborhoods and even in some cases reservations. The virtual born – or “Virtborn” – became natural, but with it was a loss of emotion, a growing collective mindset, and a subsequent decline and fall in the arts and science. The “biologics,” in turn, began to develop increasingly eccentric cultural traits in order to “prove” they were the true humans, including bringing up ancient human practices such as zoot suits, black coffee, and a particularly brutal form of physical competition designed to identify “manly” qualities among males called “hockey.”

Okay, so I kinda let myself go at the end there. But the idea has been in my head for some time. I don’t know if it’s feasible – though it probably is. I’m also certain I didn’t come up with it and read about it elsewhere, though I can’t find anything about the topic at the moment.

I thought about it again when I attended a event on Sam Harris’ book tour. He was asked a question about computers and ethics, and he stated that (and here I must paraphrase for my memory is terrible) that, if we could replace a malfunctioning neuron in our brain with an artificial neuron that completely replicates the replaced neuron’s behavior, why not over time gradually replace all of them? And in that case, would we not have a fully artificial brain? And would not that brain be conscious?

That idea of just gradually replacing all our biology until we’re completely metal fascinates me. I mean, if that’s not “transhumanism,” I don’t know what is. Instead of an apocalyptic war between humanity and the machines, we instead have a gradual evolution from biological to synthetic life. Aside from the fascination, I’m not sure how I should feel about that. Is it a good thing? What will we give up to do that? But, since I’m a libertarian transhumanist, as long as it’s voluntary, it should be okay. I think most aspects of transhumanism are glorious and want to see them come about, to alleviate suffering and create more enjoyment. So long as we don’t have early adopters and retros blowing each other up…

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

Hobby Lobby Case And Derailing Secular Gains

I’m going to go out on a limb here with this Hobby Lobby case and say something that is going to be pretty controversial. Just not in the way you might imagine.

The current Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, as well as similar incidents and issues around the country, are keeping the religious level of the United States high and preventing the gradual shift to a more secular nation.

I’m not saying that because conservatives and religious folk are using the suit to maintain their religious beliefs – through employer health insurance – against the tide of reasonable secularists. No, I’m saying this because I think those who want to force employers to violate their religious consciences are in the wrong and are reinforcing the other side.

Look at this this way. Say that Hobby Lobby is allowed to avert the contraception mandate and other health insurance requirements by claiming a religious exemption. Okay, so those things are now no longer paid for by your employer. (This is far different from saying they are dictating people’s lives outside of work. Not paying for your decisions does not equal dictating those decisions. Some CNN commenters have forgotten that.) This fact, I assure you, will be loudly trumpeted throughout the media and people will know about it.

Now let’s see what happens. Those who don’t support the policy will refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby and not give them any money. Indeed, I suspect this will be a majority of Americans, even Christians. Of course, those who actually shop there will be far smaller, but I think there will probably be a boycott movement or two. They might even have some success.

Let’s have this process continue. More people become secular, and instead of forcing their ideas on the religious folk, just allow them to live their lives (without harming anyone else, of course.) The religious folk don’t see themselves as under threat as they do now, and may actually start to talk to the more secular people out there. They may even see them as Americans. And with that, you might actually get through to them, and if not cause them to rethink their views, maybe their children will.

Compare to that to what is going on in America today: we have cases like Hobby Lobby dominating the media, where religious people feel they are under attack by a pernicious, left-wing, godless conspiracy. They go on the defensive and start to rally and organize. They use the Supreme Court case as a perfect tool for fundraising and email list collection. And they naturally shut themselves off from listening to the other side, as they perceive what is coming at them not to be words, but bullets.

It happens with pretty much every controversial topic these days, if not since the beginning of time.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to see a world where religion is something of the past, where people have stopped believing in supernatural beliefs and instead relegate such things to the realm of fantasy (and maybe get a bit too excited about their favorite TV show). I want a world where science – proper science, not the bastardized progressive worshipping meshuggnah we seem to have today (to see what I mean, Google “anti-vaccine,” “GMOs,” “fracking,” etc) – rules the day, and we can leap far beyond our current selves and advance into a new world where suffering may just possibly be eliminated. We might have room for some secular philosophy such as Secular Humanism or (a toned down variant of) Objectivism, but for the most part I don’t even want that, as they still carry faint threats of straightjacketism and dogmatism in the wings.

However, what is going on today is the wrong way to go about it. Such change can never be forced. European nobles attempted to do so by forcing their subjects to follow the same religion they did; what they got were centuries of religious warfare and pointless struggles. Not until John Locke came around with his revolutionary ideas that, in someone’s mind, that person is sovereign (and thus religion is a wholly individual choice) did this silliness begin to come to an end. Let’s not forget either that this country was, philosophically speaking, built on Locke’s ideas.

By using government to try and force employers to violate their religious consciences – in the name of “health care,” no less – we’re risking starting that up again, and undoing all the advances we’ve made in the past two centuries. Do I think it will come to actual violence? I find that unlikely – Americans talk a good game about kicking ass and being manly, but in general we’re rather reluctant to actually bite, as declining crime rates show – but on the other hand, you never know. Two months ago I didn’t think Russia would actually invade and annex a part of Ukraine.

I do think, however, that it is a largely unnecessary and pointless antagonism of the religious America – which is still about 79% of the population, if my memory serves. We really shouldn’t be having this debate in the first place; government shouldn’t be telling employers what they can and can’t pay for, and if I’m brutally honest we should never have tied health insurance to employers in the first place! (Thanks, FDR.) It’s just as my friends Trevor Burrus and Aaron Ross Powell say: politics makes us worse. It leads to fights that, if government stayed out of the matter entirely, would never have become fights. One side would do X, the other side would do Y, and we’d go our merry ways. Instead, because government force is involved, everything becomes a battleground that must be fought over, lest the “other” is able to impose it’s values onto you at the expense of your liberty.

We cannot force our way to a more secular nation. It can only come naturally and through organic processes.

It’s truly tragic, especially when you consider how it’s harming our society’s development. Oh, we’re still progressing in many key areas, but I just think if some people stopped trying to push their own ideology on everybody else and just let things work naturally, society would be progressing a lot faster.


PS: If you like this blog post, you might like my Op-Ed on Why The GOP Should Not Turn Away From Secularism over at Practical Politicking.


Image from Matt Wade Photography, via Wikimedia, published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Response to Kevin Vallier: Um, no, Christian belief is not reasonable

I am a huge fan of the website Bleeding Heart Libertarians. It’s one of the few blogs I read that is genuinely intelligent and intellectual, and while that’s probably because I don’t read too many philosophy blogs, it also makes it one of the most enjoyable. Unfortunately, every so often you get a dud. And, even more rarely, you get what can only be described as a rotten egg.

Earlier this week, public reason liberal anarchist Kevin Vallier posted Christian Belief is Reasonable, So Respect It. His basic thesis is that atheists and other irreligious folk need to give a ton of more respect to Christiansand the Christian religion.

I’m a big believer in reasonable pluralism, the notion that there are deep, pervasive disagreements about morality, politics and religion that are the unavoidable result of practical reasoning in a free society. That means I think there are non-culpable rational disagreements about all sorts of things that really matter.

But since I’m planning a series of religion posts in 2014, I thought it worthwhile to defend one of the applications of belief in reasonable pluralism that will be critical to those posts.

I believe that a reasonable, rational and well-informed person can believe in a revealed religion. That is, she not only affirms a scheme of transcendent values and a complex natural theology, but belief in a divinely inspired set of social practices and sacred texts. I am fairly confident that one can be a reasonable Confucian, Buddhist, Muslim or Jew. Due to my familiarity with Christianity, I am extremely confident that one can be a reasonable Christian.

This means that many atheists, in particular New Atheists and Objectivists, should treat the beliefs of people of faith with far more respect than they presently do.

In the above selection, the italicized parts are Vallier’s own emphasis, while the bolded fragment is my own emphasis. I intend to draw attention to the word “reasonable,” because it is upon this the crux of this argument is being made. Now, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, reasonable (in addition to the meanings of “fair, moderate no extreme or excessive”) means “being in accordance with reason.” What is reason? George H. Smith, in his seminal book Atheism: The Case Against God, identifies reason as:

“Reason,” to quote Ayn Rand, “is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.” It is by abstracting the immediately given concretes of his experience into concepts, and integrating these into still wider concepts, that man acquires knowledge and surpasses the ability of lower life forms.

He continues:

To qualify as knowledge (i.e., as a correct identification of reality), a belief must be justified; it must warrant acceptance by rational standards. If a belief meets the requirements of these standards, it is a rational belief; if a belief cannot meet the requirements–but is adopted nonetheless–it is an irrational belief.

Specifying criteria for knowledge is a complex and controversial task, and one which we shall discuss in more detail in the following chapter. For the present discussion, we may indicate three minimum requirements that must be fulfilled before any belief can claim the status of knowledge: (a) a belief must be based on evidence; (b)a belief must be internally consistent (i.e., not self-contradictory); (c)a belief cannot contradict previously validated knowledge with which it is to be integrated. If a belief fails to meet any or all of these criteria, it cannot properly be designated as knowledge.

Knowledge, of course, is basically reason’s raison d’etre. So here we have a pretty good foundation for what is reason, and thus, what is reasonable.

Vallier has three central points he addresses. His first point is theism:

The first foundational belief of the Christian is theism. It is simply obvious that theism is reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion. Nearly all atheists in the literature acknowledge that theistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified.

Wha-ha? “[T]heistic belief is at least sometimes epistemically justified”? And this is acknowledged by “nearly all atheists in the literature”? Perhaps I have not read enough atheist literature, but this seems to me to be a rather spurious claim. Who are these atheists? When and where did they write these things? Vallier does not provide these names, so already his argument is looking weak. (Remember, evidence.)

His other point, that theism is “reasonable to anyone who is acquainted with contemporary philosophy of religion” also strikes me as rather weak. Theism is the belief that there is a god or gods who exist. Now, on the surface, this to anyone sounds like a valid claim, even if untrue. (Note that I’m not really using the word “valid” as expressed in logic.) But here comes the problem: what is (a) god?

Most people I’ve asked this question either start laughing (as in, “How can you be so stupid you don’t know what god is?”), or given me stares and/or start sputtering. (One answer was “God is god” with a nervous chuckle, as if the person saying it knew the tautology involved and it had started to crack their faith.) But the question is an important one: what, exactly, is god? As George H. Smith notes, if someone started claiming that an “unie” exists, the first thing you would do is not say “Prove it,” you would say, “Just what the hell is an ‘unie’?” As such, we need to know what, exactly, is entailed by the word “god”.

Alas, this has been a search that has been undergoing since the beginning of human civilization. You can ask innumerable people what god is, and come away with innumerable answers. This is one reason why there are so many monotheistic religions, but also within these religions so many sects, denominations, and divisions. This is not like libertarianism, where we have differences over what is the best way to achieve liberty, and what liberty in practice would mean; no, this is far deeper. At it’s core it’s that we really have no definition of god to begin with.

Many have gone through the argument that there is no coherent definition of god; George H. Smith goes into it in such depth in the first part of his book that I think it really should have been titled Igtheism: The Case Against God.. I will not reproduce Smith’s work here, but suffice to say there is a great deal of doubt as to what, if anything, the word “god” really refers to. One point is the idea that “god” is incomprehensible, lying beyond our reason. If that is the case, then by definition, belief is unreasonable. Another point, then, is to give “god” “unlimited attributes”, such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. But these don’t make any sense whatsoever. How could you have these unlimited attributes, when an attribute in and of itself consists of a limitation, of a definite quality? How can there be existence without limitations when existence is defined by limitations?

So theism is not reasonable. By entailing a belief in something that is inherently unknowable, incomprehensible, and defies reason itself, it is unreasonable. You wouldn’t start believing me if I told you that we were all seeds from a celestial kumquat that cracked itself upon the world to spread salvation. Why, really, should we then believe in the existence of a “god” or “gods”? At least we know what a kumquat is. We have no clue what a “god” is.

Of course, Vallier preempts any of this by saying:

Note that you needn’t think that theistic proofs are successful to think that at least one version of one of them can be rationally affirmed by an honest person. If so, then theistic belief is reasonable. Don’t dispute me here. I’m in good company with Leibniz and Aquinas.

Vallier does not tolerate your pathetic dissent. He just dismisses it entirely. Here’s his problem: as I pointed out above, by definition, theism isn’t nreasonable (and also isn’t rational) so while an honest person may affirm it, it would not actually be a rational decision.

Perhaps this is because I am not acquainted with the contemporary literature of the philosophy of religion. Maybe I just need to get a proper education in this topic. Or…maybe it’s because the philosophers of religion aren’t half as smart as they think they are. Just a thought.

Moving along to his second point, Vallier says:

The second foundational belief is that the Gospel reports of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are reliable. Many of you probably think the Gospels are not reliable sources of information about Jesus, given that they are full of miracles and were written long after Jesus’ death by unknown individuals. That’s fine. But is your view so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree?

I think there is significant doubt as to the veracity of the Gospels. First, even though Vallier says that the gospels were written within a generation of Jesus’ death, the earliest point around when they may have been written was 50 A.D.–twenty years after Jesus died. More reliable dating by historians point around after 70 A.D., forty years later. And these were most definitely not written by eyewitnesses, but loads and loads of heresay. Now how can these be accurate? The Associated Press frequently gets things wrong minutes after they occur in a society where we have advanced technology, education, and data verification systems. Imagine trying to get the truth of something decades after it occurred in a society where irrigation is considered a bloody miracle and you think the Earth is flat.

Is my view “so ironclad that a reasonable, informed person couldn’t disagree”? Again, this gets back to what is reasonable. Resurrection is just flat out unreasonable, and I would think any reasonable, informed person would agree on that. As for the life and death of Jesus, I am not one of those atheists who says that Jesus flat out did not exist. Rather, I think there was probably a man named Jesus who did some things, was probably a social reformer and agitator, and was executed by the Romans (and backed by corrupt Jewish authorities) for his trouble. Out of his life story, without modern inventions like video and rigorous journalism and historical documentation, a tale of a divine man emerged. Mixed with previous religions who had similar resurrection stories for their divine heroes, Jesus became the son of “god” (again, whatever that is) and a new religion was born. Indeed, the most prolific promoter of Christian, Paul of Tarsus, didn’t really start proselytizing until long after Jesus was dead and the truth was in doubt.

And so what if the Gospels were written within the generation of Jesus’ death? Eyewitness testimony is notorious for being of dubious value, and that’s before we get to the truly weird stuff. If someone was saying they just saw people abducted by aliens, you would either think they’re talking about the Mexican drug cartels or were just crazy. That would be the reasonable response, at least at first.

Lastly, Vallier addresses the Trinity. This is one of the most problematic components of Christian theology, for even though Christians stridently advocate there is only one god, they worship at least three: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the Trinity–that’s a journey best undertaken by people who have the time, energy, and willpower to do so–but a good summary is that the Trinity is a doctrine riddled with contradictions, holes, and much philosophical jury-rigging to get it to fit with everything else. To believe in this would also be unreasonable, as nothing is clear nor consistent, requirements for reason.

In summary, then, no, the Christian belief is not actually reasonable. Theism itself is rather unreasonable, being as it is a belief system centered around one or more supernatural entities that are undefinable. In addition, neither the Bible nor the Trinity can save Christian belief from unreasonableness; indeed, if anything, they only doom it further.

This is most emphatically not to say that we should disrespect individual Christians, whether in public or in private. To paraphrase a popular Christian saying, “Hate the belief, love the believer.” I have made it known on this blog where I stand with regards to the antics of such organizations as American Atheists and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, as well as all those local atheist groups who vandalize or do really dumb things regarding Nativity scenes. I do not believe in taking a combative approach, especially not in public. But if you’re in a private, or at least less public setting, and someone is telling you that they’ve made a decision based on (or worse, that you have to do something because of) something that a magical being that we cannot know told them, you would obligated to say, with a straight face, “Kevin, that is absurd.”

That is different from disrespecting the individual. You are pointing out that their point is ridiculous. Pointing out the ridiculous is not disrespect, but if it be disrespect, then make the most of it. We do not suffer outrageous statements and beliefs. We tolerate them for a time with children, but gradually help them grow out of it. We tend to regard anyone who seriously believes in fairies or unicorns as being either in jest or somewhat unstable. The same goes for libertarians who have discovered a bona fide socialist in this day and age.

Yet perhaps the very fact that theism is unreasonable is why it still lives. Perhaps Marx was right about the masses needing their opium. Is there a psychological or–dare I say it–spiritual need for a belief in the unbelievable? Do people need something in their hearts that exists beyond the realm of existence itself in order to give them some grounding, something to help them survive this existence? I think that’s probably the case. Just as fiction fulfills the role of “catharsis,” or release, so too does religion. (Now watch as some atheist wanders in here and says “Well duh, religion is fiction…”) So that is all well and good. The point of theism is that it is unreasonable, and humans need a dose of the unreasonable to get them through life. But that does nothing to make the belief itself reasonable or rational.

This is also, of course, before we get to some of the truly dark things about Christianity, especially those derived from its Judaic ancestry. Disobedient children are to be put to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21), while those who mock a bald man are to be ripped apart by bears (2 Kings 2:23-24). How about killing women who are being raped who don’t scream hard enough? (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) Or subjecting wives to their husbands unconditionally? (Ephesians 5:22-24) Or how about cutting off your hands and feet that may give you temptation? (Mark 9:43-48) And let’s not even get started on Abraham almost murdering his son Isaac, because a voice in his head told him so. Against all reason, he takes his son up the mountain and gets ready to kill him there as an offering.

These are not only unreasonable, they are morally repugnant.

Of course, modern Christianity does not generally follow these points, yet they remain within the Bible and are not any less Christian for it. They are, of course, unreasonable, and that, more than anything, is why they are ignored.

Again, I want to reiterate that I do not advocate disrespecting individual Christians or being out and out assholes to them. But to argue that Christian belief is reasonable is a fool’s errand. It is built upon a foundation of irrationality and unreasonableness, and for many centuries openly attacked reason as being the Devil’s bride. For many people, that is the point.

I would suggest to anyone interested in reading books on atheism firstly the excellent Atheism: The Case Against God by George H. Smith, with the warning that it is quite deep. Part 1 focuses on claims about the existence of god; part 2 is a massive, in-depth exploration of faith vs. reason; Part 3, which I haven’t gotten to yet, examine the positive arguments for god; Part 4 looks at practical consequences of belief in god. I would also recommend Richard Carrier’s Why I Am Not a Christian, an easier to read book that goes through four major reasons why Christianity does not work: god’s silence, god’s inert state, the wrong evidence for a supernatural being, and ultimately that we are just in the wrong universe for such an entity. (I understand Carrier is associated with the Atheist+ movement, which I reject, but his book is sound. His other book, Goodness without God is, to put it mildly, a bit boring. I only got through the preface.)

tl;dr: Um, no, Kevin, Christian belief is not reasonable, and I don’t really have any reason to respect it anymore than I have a reason to respect a genuine belief in fairies.

Update: Jason Brennan of BHL quotes a response to Vallier from another blogger, and underneath the quote makes this important statement:

I’m posting this because I saw similar types of responses in the commends to Kevin’s previous post. And I wonder if Richard [the other blogger] and Kevin are actually disagreeing here. I suspect–and I invite Kevin and Richard to correct me if I’m wrong–that Kevin is talking about reasonableness, but Richard is talking about epistemic justification or epistemic rationality.

Kevin claims that religious belief and theism, or at least certain instances of them, are reasonable. “Reasonable” is a technical term in public reason liberalism. Just what constitutes reasonableness is a big topic the PR liberals debate, but they all build into the concept of reasonable that reasonable beliefs are to be respected by liberalism. A reasonable objection has to be defeated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable lifestyle has to be accommodated; an unreasonable one doesn’t. A reasonable claim has to be heard; an unreasonable one doesn’t. Etc.

In addition, PR liberals tend to hold that the category of the “reasonable” is broader than the category of the epistemically justified or the epistemically rational. Many beliefs that are not epistemically justified or that would be epistemically irrational to hold (because they are held in violation of the correct epistemic standards, whatever they are) are still reasonable. The standards of reasonableness are less demanding than the standards of epistemic justification.

Now I feel kinda dumb. I should have been the igtheist and asked just what Vallier meant by reasonable, but I figured I had a good sense of what reasonable is. Yet he’s not talking about reasonableness as reason at all; he’s talking about a technical term within the school of public reason liberalism. Moreover, this term isn’t even really defined; it seems to be a bit fuzzy. This is why asking for definitions and setting grounds for discussion are so important. Especially now that it looks like “reasonableness,” in this context, is functionally meaningless.


Individual Sovereignty, Humanism, and Libertarianism


AUTHOR’S NOTE: I intend to update and add to this at a later date. I consider it to be somewhat incomplete at the moment.

I apologize for this post; it’s a bit spread out because of the way I got to the topic in question.

Over the weekend, NYPD officers attempted to subdue an apparently crazy person in Times Square. I say attempted, because all they really did was bulletspray and hit two completely innocent bystanders–one an elderly lady in a walker. This, after the bulletspray fest last year outside the Empire State Building, and also earlier this year when the LAPD, during the Dorner manhunt, bulletsprayed a completely random car that didn’t look anything like the vehicle that was on their APB.

Naturally, I spoke out against this. I think police brutality and police incompetence are serious issues that deserve more of a national discussion. Unlike talk about the deficit and the debt ceiling, or foreign policy, or the minutiae of economic regulation, police reform and criminal justice reform touches on Americans directly. It affects citizens in a very immediate sense–usually by killing them. Yet for some reason, despite all the deaths logged by the Cato Institute’s National Police Misconduct Reporting Project, or the other horrendous activities reported by CopBlock, or the crazy stories of civil asset forfeiture run amok, or even Third Amendment violations, it seems to me that nobody is really talking about this in a meaningful way. Politicians sweep it under the rug and go on to start another shouting match about the debt ceiling or them brown people coming over the border.

I also noted that one of the scariest things that is happening is the militarization of police around the country, something I noted last year for United Liberty, and which is the subject of a recent book by Radley Balko. This led to a gun control activist to start yelling about how the police were arming themselves with military hardware because the NRA had weakened gun laws and led to rampant armament of the populace. Naturally, I disagreed. We had a bit of a back and forth about it, and then somehow suicide entered into the equation. I’ll let my Storify speak for itself:

I went off on a rant about humanism and individual sovereignty.

This leads me to the real meat and potatoes of this blog post, which is atheism, libertarianism, and what it really means to be a humanist.

A long time ago, I blogged about the silliness that is Atheism+, a new “movement” that tried to merge atheism with third-wave feminism and far-left progressivism by basically being assholes to everybody. One of the most important points is that atheism does not lead to anything directly. Atheism, being merely the rejection of belief in a supernatural entity or entities, doesn’t really entail anything beyond that. Even though I would really like to agree with this blog post that says atheism leads to libertarianism, even that is really not true. How, exactly, does lack of a belief in a supernatural entity lead to a libertarian leap? It doesn’t. There is no underlying philosophical foundation there. The previous author talks about controlling your own life and thinking for yourself, but that is not ipso facto atheism.

There is a difference, though, between atheism and humanism. Atheism is a philosophical position. Humanism is to atheism what Christianity is to theism (sort of). While there is a long running argument over whether or not humanism is a religion (other terms include “life stance,” a “replacement for religion,” which I think both works and yet doesn’t), it sort of fits the bill. Just barely.

What is humanism, though? Let’ see a couple of definitions:

  1. (Philosophy) the denial of any power or moral value superior to that of humanity; the rejection of religion in favour of a belief in the advancement of humanity by its own efforts
  2. (Philosophy) a philosophical position that stresses the autonomy of human reason in contradistinction to the authority of the Church

Note that: human reason. Human autonomy. Exactly the things that I mentioned above in my Twitter rant.

Yes, said autonomy sometimes includes suicide. This is a tragic thing, but yet if we’re going to respect autonomy then we must respect that too. But for the most part, that doesn’t happen, that doesn’t come up. What does come up all the time are small things, small decisions. Like the size of soda cup you’re buying, or your sexual orientation, or what sort of clothes you like to wear.

These decisions stem from our sapience, and come from our rationality. And if you’re going to be a human being, and not reject humanity, then you must embrace this sapience, and moreover, individual human sovereignty. Anything else is inhuman, full stop.

That’s why I think libertarianism and humanism naturally go together. If you’re a libertarian, that leads to humanism because you’re focused on freeing individuals from the power of a large government, and letting them control their lives; and humanism is all about human lives being front and center. If you’re a humanist, focusing on human lives and humanity, then you should naturally be a libertarian, because libertarianism embraces and encourages the natural essence of humanity, sapience.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long time now ever since I heard about “thick libertarianism.” This is the idea that libertarianism entails other ideas that are not necessarily political, that there are consequences to being a libertarian. The idea, as far as I can determine, was formed by Charles Johnson, also known as RadGeek, a left-libertarian blogger. Here is a good reading list to start on if you want to know more about thick libertarianism and libertarian morality:

  1. The post where it all (sorta) began, “Libertarianism Through Thick & Thin” by Charles Johnson
  2. Libertarianism: Thick and Thin“, by Matt Zwolinski
  3. Libertarianism and Morality” by Fernando Teson
  4. Libertarian Social Morality: Progressive, Conservative, or Liberal?” by Kevin Vallier
  5. BONUS: “The Libertarian Middle Way“, by Randy Barnett

Johnson explores several different forms of thick libertarianism, or shades of thickness, really. Two of these are “strategic thickness–causes of liberty,” and “thickness from consequences–the effects of liberty.” I think both of these lead toward humanism. The first because, as Johnson himself notes:

Or, to take a less controversial example, many if not most libertarians, throughout the history of the movement, have argued that there are good reasons for libertarians to promote a culture in which reason and independent thinking are highly valued, and blind conformism is treated with contempt. But if this is a good thing for liberty, it must be for reasons other than some kind of entailment of the non-aggression principle. Certainly everyone has a right to believe things simply because everybody believes it, or to do things simply because everybody does it, as long as their conformism respects the equal rights of independent thinkers to think independently and act independently with their own person and property. It is logically conceivable that a society could be rigidly conformist while remaining entirely free; it would just have to be the case that the individual people within that society were, by and large, psychologically and culturally inclined to be so docile, and so sensitive to social disapproval, ostracism, and verbal peer pressure, that they all voluntarily chose to go along with the crowd.

Technically, reason itself doesn’t require libertarianism, but if we’re going to promote a society where there is limited government and people have individual responsibility for their own actions, then you’re going to promote reason. And when you do that, you find yourself heading towards freethought, which heads towards humanism…

The other, “effects of liberty,” is simply the same thing but in reverse. A society of free people is going to lead towards humanism in one way or another. If we’re going to give people power over their own lives, there is going to be less power from the Church.

I’m not saying that one cannot be a Christian and a libertarian at the same time, but there is a tension there between the Christian and libertarian elements that I don’t think you get from being an atheist libertarian or a humanist one. For centuries, the Christian Church has been a state unto itself, passing edicts and laws and being very forceful in demanding people to bow to its will, or at least the will of whomever at the time was wearing the most outrageous hat. God is described as a king, with ultimate power, and everyone is to bow down and obey him. Indeed, for a long time, free will was ignored, and the Church was extremely authoritative. Although various Christian denominations have undergone rebranding efforts over the past couple of centuries, dealing with the rise of (classical) liberalism, Christianity is still very much a top-down, hierarchical, authoritative institution. “Follow our commands or burn in hell forever.” Not exactly a lot of leeway there.

I should also point out that I don’t exactly agree with many of the various “Humanist Manifestos” either. A lot of what I’ve seen published suggests that many want to make humanism lean towards some variety of socialism or social democracy–but then, I see these people as not being fully humanist either. If they’re going to take so many decisions away from individuals and put it in the hands of a nebulous, all-powerful state, then they’re not embracing the very essence of humanity either. Just because I use the term “humanist” doesn’t mean I’m talking about the party line of the American Humanist Association, the Council for Secular Humanism, or the IHEU. I’m talking solely about a human-centered philosophy that lacks supernatural elements.

That, by itself, I think goes hand in hand with libertarianism. Sort of an odd topic to come to via police brutality and suicide, but that’s what happens when something has been bubbling under the surface for awhile and gets hit with a random act of tragedy.

Interesting discoveries in “God is Not Great”

God_is_not_greatI am in the middle of Chapter Eight of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens. I can’t believe I haven’t gotten around to it before. It’s actually a superb book, in that Hitchens is just a great writer, and his British tone is absolutely delightful to read.

Chapter Six, on evolution and the creation of man, is the most interesting one (so far) to me for a somewhat different reason. Hitchens makes the argument that evolution is far more miraculous than any supernatural tale of creation, and knocks down arguments about how a creator is required by examining how we get the results but without any direction. It just strikes me how similar it is to the concept of spontaneous order, promoted and defended by the great libertarian philosopher and economist Friedrich Hayek. (A good essay on this is his classic “Cosmos and Taxis“, which regrettably has nothing to do with space taxis. Bummer.)

It does make you wonder if there are connections between libertarianism and atheism there, or at least humanism (or at least science!). Sounds like a more attractive libertarianism to me than the paleotarian variant I see going around so darn much. (As you can imagine, I’m something of a “cosmotarian.”)

.@pzmyers smears Michael Shermer, and I have a hunch why

It appears that PZ Myers, long a bomb-throwing, shit-stirring sort of atheist, has decided to just smear Michael Shermer with allegations that Mr. Shermer is a rapist. As the above video explains quite well (and within the first three minutes) the entire story just smacks of falsehood. And even if it is true, why is Myers publishing it on his blog and not going to the police?

The video implies that the reason is for more pagehits, which I cannot deny is some motivation. PZ has been losing credibility and steam in the world, and like any attention whore he needs new marks. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

Michael Shermer is one of the leading atheists in the world, Founding Publisher of Skeptics Magazine and Executive Director of the Skeptics Society. But Michael Shermer is also a libertarian. I don’t agree with him on everything–he took a decidedly leftist view on guns after the Newtown tragedy–but overall the man is libertarian.

PZ Myers, on the other hand, is most decidedly not libertarian. He is a progressive at best, a socialist at worse. (He calls himself a “godless liberal biologist” on his Twitter bio, but that’s because he doesn’t really know the meaning of liberal.) As I’ve noted before, PZ is behind the creation of “Atheismplus,” or “Atheism+,” which is sadly not some sort of atheist social networking site but is rather a sociopolitical movement designed to sneakily convert all of atheism over to left-wing progressives. Under PZ’s view, unless you take his positions on politics, society, and just about everything else, you can’t be an atheist. It was a handy way of trying to become the spokesman for atheism, however, that move backfired horrendously. As far as I am aware–which is actually limited, because unlike many atheists I do not spend a whole hell of a lot of time focusing on atheist bitchfests–Atheism+ sort of fizzled. Well, actually, it tore the atheist movement apart, created a lot of needless melodrama, and a whole lot of arguments, then fizzled. A lot of it had to do with McCarthy-esque witch hunts hunting down supposed misogynists, but it was really another attempt at using left-wing style politics to silence political opponents, this time in the (supposedly homogenous) atheist community.

I have no doubt that Myers’ baseless accusations, backed up by no evidence whatsoever, are caused by politics. Sure, he may be wanting to get more attention after A+ severely damaged his reputation, but this will not help him. It only makes him look more like a scumbag.

What I find most interesting about all of this is that there is a lot of disgust towards PZ Myers, the Atheism+ movement, and stuff like this happening. Reading about what happened to A+ makes me feel better about atheism in general. For a long time I thought atheism was overrun with socialists, progressives, and “statheists,” but apparently I was wrong. Thank goodness.

In more immediate details, Shermer has filed a cease and desist order against Myers. The post is still up, and PZ has sought legal assistance from Ken White at Popehat. That makes me a bit worried; I like Ken, and he offers pro bono legal help to bloggers facing libel and defamation suits. That’s a good thing, but he should steer clear of this one. This is just straight up, well, defamation, really, without any facts or evidence, calculated to cause reputational damage to someone, likely because of political differences. That’s not really something you can defend in court, but Ken is the lawyer, not me. Still, I would hate to see someone like Ken tarnished by being associated with this.

In short: PZ Myers is a turd. He will defame people, destroy them, if he disagrees with them, and wants to label any atheist he disagrees with him as “not-atheist.” He’s pretty low (and apparently also a misogynist himself.)

This is what happens when you go down that road of “progressivism.”

Libertarian Populism and Basic Income

UPDATE: Welcome, reason readers! Make sure to follow me on Twitter at @jdkolassa!

There’s been a new trend in political writing over the past few months: the notion of “libertarian populism.” After doing the autopsy on the Republican Party’s downright pathetic 2012 presidential campaign–something that the GOP should have won handily, but instead lost miserably–many have started to look towards some form of libertarianism as the GOP’s 2016 savior.

There are many, many positive developments from this, namely a focus on economic rather than social issues (which, let’s be frank, is a lose-lose proposition for the Republican Party–even abortion, though that’s more long-term) and directing fury at crony capitalism, that collusion between big government and big business that is the real problem, not any imagined socialism. And unlike some naysayers, I think a “libertarian populist” message would resonate well with voters–as long as the PR packaging is done right.

As far as I can figure out, the genesis of this recent trend began with Ross Douthat, when he wrote a blog post laying out a case for “reform conservatism,” another option for revitalizing the GOP and the larger conservative movement. It has some interesting points, though Peter Suderman over at reason took some exceptions to a few and asked why not adopt libertarianism rather than try and fix conservatism? Douthat then wrote a reply, entitled “Libertarian Populism and Its Limits.” (He does cite a tweet by Ben Domenech talking about “populist libertarianism,” but let’s call that a prequel.) I understand some of Douthat’s points, but as far as I can see he’s wrong on monetary policy and he doesn’t seem to grok how yes, we can sell Rand’s platform as being benefical to the folks on the lower rungs of the ladder (go read BHL for starters.)

(By the way, if you’re interested, Pascal Emmanuel Gobry has written a manifesto for reform conservatism over at Forbes. Not saying that I agree, it’s just interesting.)

The next day, Ben Domenech wrote on RCP the piece that seemed to really start it all, giving us an “agenda” for libertarian populism. The very next day he wrote a second essay responding to his responders, this one illuminating the challenges that libertarian populism faces. These two pieces are crucial, I think, for setting the this discussion up, but it didn’t stop there.

Earlier this month, Conn Carroll at the Washington Examiner, which recently became a monthly publication, laid out a list of policy reforms for “economic populism,” but I think he really means “libertarian populism.” Then, Tim Carney,  “Mr. Anti-Crony Capitalist” himself, laid out a similar list of policy ideas in AEI, a sort of proto-manifesto. Gobry, again at Forbes, wrote glowingly about Carney’s piece.

But then, of course, there are the detractors.

There is, of course, Paul Krugman’s obligatory swipe, but let’s not mince words about Krugman–he’s a loon. More credible is criticism from Ramesh Ponnuru, a “reform conservative” (or “reformocon”) who notes that people won’t necessarily buy into libertarian populism, because folks don’t care about some of the more wonky ideas (a point that Ed Kilgore also jumped on–but who the hell listens to him?)

And where does this end up? With me, of course, adding my own voice into the mix.

Let me first pull together the items from Carney’s list and Caroll’s list, so we have an idea of what the core of a libertarian populist policy might look like:

  1. Tim Carney
    1. Break up the big banks, and/or place stricter safety and soundness rules on them
    2. Cut or eliminate the payroll tax
    3. End corporate welfare
    4. Cleaner tax code
    5. Health-care reform
    6. Kill anticompetitive regulations
    7. Address political privilege
  2. Conn Carroll
    1. Rollback the surveillance state
    2. End the Drug War
    3. End deportations
    4. Break up the banks
    5. Return infrastructure to the states
    6. Return education to the states
    7. End student loans
    8. Revenue-neutral tax simplification
    9. Market-tested health care

Obviously there is some overlap here. But we do get a broad outline for a reform agenda: break up the banks, return powers to the states, end subsidies and bailouts to big business, and enact institutional, structural reforms that benefit the little guy while weakening the big wealthy elites. This is a winning strategy all around.

Now, to issue some disagreement with Mr. Ponnuru. He writes:

I’m sympathetic to most of the items on Carney’s list — and those on the list that fellow populist Conn Carroll has compiled. Taken together, though, they do not seem to amount to a winning political platform. A Republican party that took on the U.S. Export-Import Bank might improve its image a bit, but how many Americans really care enough about the issue to change their votes based on it? Nor does freeing the food trucks seem like it would win many votes, however right it might be as a policy matter.

The libertarian populists sometimes seem to make the same political mistake as left-wing populists: Assuming that because most voters distrust big business and do not believe they share its interests, they are therefore looking for the politician who will most vocally take it on.

Cutting the payroll tax, unlike most of these ideas, would tangibly affect most people’s lives by raising their take-home pay. If Republicans proposed it, though, they would surely be accused of jeopardizing Social Security and Medicare, which seems like a rather large political defect. Other Carroll proposals, such as ending student loans and the mortgage deduction, seem likely to be unpopular even at first glance.

While I sympathize with his concerns, I think they’re misplaced. Yes, people are probably not up to date and therefore don’t really care as much about the Import-Export Bank. But that’s not a problem. All you need to say is this:

You only have $20,000. These big corporations have $20 billion. The government is taking your money and giving it to these big corporations! That’s messed up!

Boom. No in-depth, wonkish policy explanations necessary. Just use basic rhetoric and what is foremost on folks’ minds: the money in their wallets. Great success! And as for food trucks and Social Security, well, food trucks have more supporters than I think Mr. Ponnuru thinks they have, and there is a growing segment of Americans, young and old, who are getting very concerned about Social Security, and sooner or later those are going to have to be addressed anyways, there’s no escaping that.

I think this is a really great start, and indeed, a libertarian populist agenda married to “reform conservatism,” as Gobry suggests, may actually win at the polls. Putting families against big business is sure to get some people onboard. Believe me, I’m still very skeptical of libertarian-conservative fusionism–ultimately, it’s more of a tool for conservatives to boost their voter rolls than anything–but a fusionism where libertarians took the reins, focused more on economics instead of losing, divisive social issues, and focused on the moral worth of the individual rather than blindly talking about “society,” would be one I could get behind.

There are a couple of things I think this growing movement is missing, though, or at the very least, there are some things I think should be coupled with it. One should be a distaste or skepticism for mixing religion with politics. I make no bones about my being an igtheist, a nonreligious person, and I’m a fan of the new Republican Reason Caucus, a group explicitly formed to make the GOP more secular, more tolerant, and more rational (i.e., no more of this crap). Medium to long term, basing all political arguments on religious ones just isn’t going to work. 20% of Americans are nonreligious and that number is growing. Note that I am not saying that the GOP must become completely secular, but it must be become more secular, and just tone down some of the more fundamentalist Christian rhetoric–and yes, in the process, become more inclusive to gays and lesbians, and anyone of “alternative” lifestyles. Look back at recent history and note, when has the GOP won big? When it ignored social issues, tempered the religious rhetoric, and went straight for the economics and defending people’s wallets. When has it lost? When it started talking about “legitimate rape” and other nonsense.

We can definitely agree that individual churches should not have to bend their doctrine to fit a political will, and that they should not be forced to sanctify things that go against their beliefs, but that works two ways. Let’s stop bringing religion into politics and then we can start getting politics out of religion.

Second, I don’t really see anything about the social safety net. Yes, there’s a lot about reforming entitlements, but there’s precious little (from what I can see, anyways, I might be blind) to the more overall system of welfare. It’s a system plagued by redundancies and inefficiences, yet is still growing, all the while punishing people who increase their income and make themselves better off. This is insane. The government doesn’t even know how many are actually there, what they’re actually spending, or if they’re getting taxpayers’ money’s worth.

There is a reform path that I’ve talked about before, and that has been supported by such great minds as Milton Friedman and Jeffrey Miron: the Negative Income Tax. This would essentially create a guaranteed minimum income or universal basic income, ideas supported by Friedrich Hayek and Charles Murray, and would also do away with many other detestable things. First, by combining it with a flat tax (which is how both Friedman and Miron sketch it out) it would effectively do away with a ton of the IRS bureaucracy. Second, because it would be automatic, it would also effectively do away with a lot of the HHS and welfare bureaucracy, which is a good thing. (I would argue that bureaucracy, not government, is our real problem. Most anything which shrinks bureaucracy is a plus in my book.) Third, at the same time it’s helping the poor, it would also promote beneficial habits and behaviors, and possibly also increase entrepreneurship and push these folks to succeed. (As one friend of mine said, people will be more likely to take chances if they know they have something to catch them should they fail.) Fourth, with it in place we could abolish the minimum wage–a policy that hurts the poor more than it helps–and that would get employers to start hiring again. Fifth, it would also be politically successful, as let’s be honest: the vast majority of Americans, even conservative Americans, do not want to live in a country with no social safety net. That’s a view only shared by the most hardcore Tea Partiers, Nozickian libertarians, Randian Objectivists, and anarcho-capitalists. Proposing any sort of view that just cut away welfare without replacing it with something better is doomed to failure and mockery.

An NIT, on the other hand, if marketed properly and not conflated with other idiotic ideas, can be a very strong replacement. In my view, in addition to having the “general deduction” (which would be the threshold you’d have to cross before you starting paying taxes rather than receiving them) and a charitable deductino (don’t leave home without one!), I would also put in a system of tax credits for the five basic needs in modern society: the three classical ones–food, clothing, shelter (including rent, utilities, etc.)–and the two “new” needs I see–healthcare and education. Put that together, combine it with the pro-market reforms listed above, which should definitely make it easier to get ahead and make the prices of goods and services go down, and you have a winner for a more stable, more prosperous society. (And while we’re at it, let’s junk the corporate income tax. Better for the poor, as it turns out.)

That’s a really long blog post. But I think it’s necessary. There’s a very good thing happening here. But it needs a couple more ingredients to make it stick.

North Carolina: Theocracy in Action

Lawmakers in North Carolina want to make it a Christian theocracy:

Raleigh, N.C. — A bill filed by Republican lawmakers would allow North Carolina to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and seeks to nullify any federal ruling against Christian prayer by public bodies statewide.

The legislation grew out of a dispute between the American Civil Liberties Union against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. In a federal lawsuit filed last month, the ACLU says the board has opened 97 percent of its meetings since 2007 with explicitly Christian prayers.

Overtly Christian prayers at government meetings are not rare in North Carolina. Since the Republican takeover in 2011, the state Senate chaplain has offered an explicitly Christian invocation virtually every day of session, despite the fact that some senators are not Christian.

That they’re having religious prayers of any kind in a government body is odious to begin with, but Republican theoconservatives have really gone over the deep end with this one:

House Bill 494, a resolution filed by Republican Rowan County Reps. Harry Warren and Carl Ford, would refuse to acknowledge the force of any judicial ruling on prayer in North Carolina – or indeed on any Constitutional topic:

“The Constitution of the United States does not grant the federal government and does not grant the federal courts the power to determine what is or is not constitutional; therefore, by virtue of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the power to determine constitutionality and the proper interpretation and proper application of the Constitution is reserved to the states and to the people,” the bill states. “Each state in the union is sovereign and may independently determine how that state may make laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

Clearly, someone did not read their constitution. Yes, Mr. Warren and Ms. Ford, the Constitution does give the power to the federal courts to decide what is and isn’t unconstitutional. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

Furthermore, the 14th Amendment makes the Bill of Rights binding on the states, and the 9th Amendment states that powers that neither the federal government nor the state government have is reserved to the people. Deciding what religion you’re going to be is most certainly a power reserved to the people.

It makes me shake my head when I see stories like this. Is this what libertarianism “fusionism” with the “Right,” with theoconservatives, has gotten us? This is terrible. This is not the America our Founding Fathers envisioned. This is not the America that will prosper and go on for a long time defending individual liberty.

I know I have mocked other atheist groups for doing rather silly things, but that’s because they’re taking attention away from things that are genuinely important. LIKE THIS. This is where people should be devoting their effort and energy, to combat idiocy of this nature that seeks to impose itself upon all of us, and that will actually have a powerful effect, not something that means nothing. A state that goes against the Constitution to willfully trample over religious liberty and individual freedom of conscience cannot be tolerated.

North Carolinians should call their state reps, tell them to vote against this bill, and then tell everyone else that fought so hard against the contraceptive mandate on religious liberty grounds this is the same thing. They should also tell that to anti-gay marriage people who used the religious liberty argument. They can’t have it both ways.

If this is going to become the future of the United States, then we have a serious problem. Best to nip it in the bud today.

The #headdesk Files: Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Silly Lawsuit

The Freedom from Religion Foundation is back on my radar, again, this time for launching another lawsuit against the government’s cozy relationship with religion. I think the general idea is sound, and I support it–there needs to be a stronger sense of laïcité in America, and there is still a too close relationship between church and state.

But some lawsuits are just dumb. Like this one:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, along with 19 other plaintiffs, is suing the U.S. Treasury for stamping “In God We Trust” on currency. Honorary FFRF board member Mike Newdow is acting as legal counsel in the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on Feb. 1.

The complaint alleges that the religious verbiage is proselytizing, discriminatory and a per se establishment of monotheism in violation of the Establishment Clause.

The complaint, a tour de force of historical research, unequivocally shows that there was a purely religious purpose and intent behind putting God on our coinage. Newdow quotes representatives who voted for the addition as seeking to use the money to proselytize around the world. Rep. Herman P. Eberharter (PA) said: “[T]he American dollar travels all over the world, into every country of the world, and frequently gets behind the Iron Curtain, and if it carries this message in that way I think it would be very good. I think that is one of the most compelling reasons why we should put it on our currency. … the principles laid down by God and the teachings of our way of life should be kept alive in the hearts and minds of our friends enslaved behind the Iron Curtain.”

Plaintiffs are forced to proselytize — by an Act of Congress — for a deity they don’t believe in whenever they handle money.

Really, now? Let’s break this down.

First, the “per se establishment of monotheism in violation of the Establishment Clause.” Well, what does the Establishment Clause actually say?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .

Okay then, what religion is the text “In God We Trust” establishing? Judaism? Islam? Pantheism? Rastafarianism? Christianity? Oh, well then what sort of Christianity? Catholicism? Baptism? Lutheranism? Methodism? Mormonism? Seven-Day Adventism? Ad nausea.

Monotheism, as the Foundation is focusing on, is not a religion in and of itself. It just isn’t. What monotheism is is more of a vague belief, a “philosophical position,” as I would say, on deities. There is no doctrine of monotheism, no specific church, no dogma, no holy text. There are many different montheistic religions, just putting “God” on a piece of paper doesn’t make it one.

And then there comes the question of “What God are we talking about?” I’m sure the Representative they quoted is some form of Christian, and was referring to the Christian god. But is that the god everyone is talking about? I don’t know. If you were to line up 100 different people and ask them what they thought god was, you would get 100 different answers. The fact remains that the word “god” is meaningless, so malleable it has no form and can be twisted to mean anything. No other word in the English language in the modern age has quite the same level of malleability.

Let’s get to the second part of their complaint, that it is “discriminatory.” I genuinely sympathize with this, but let’s be honest, how is it really discriminating against anyone who isn’t a believer? Are we losing our jobs? Our property? Our lives? Uh, no, we’re just exchanging money and getting some food.

And then there’s the third point: that we’re “proselytizing” against our will. This is just so ungodly stupid (if I may be granted a pun pass.) Does anyone really take a look at the dollar bill and go “Wow! There’s god on here! Using this money means I trust in god! Maybe I should go home and rethink my life and become a monk!” Seriously? Do people pay attention to that line of text at all? Most don’t even notice it, and I would suspect a vast number of Americans don’t even know it’s there. So congrats, FFRF guys, you just drew everybody’s attention to that.

And then there’s the one thing that blows this out of the water: most of our transactions aren’t cash-based. The vast majority of things we buy we buy with credit cards and online. In fact, cash accounts for only 29% of all transactions in the United States. That means in 71% of all transactions, nobody sees “In God We Trust” because they’re not using anything that has “In God We Trust” on it. Heck, they’re not using anythng that could even have anything on it because it’s intangible! (And in Sweden, cash transactions are down to 3% of their transactions. That’s it. Just 3%. That’s probably where we’re headed.)

There are things we should be focusing on in the struggle between religion and superstition and nonbelief and reason. This is not one of them. We should be going after creationism in the schools, kids being forced to pray against their will, people who are harassed or even murdered for not being believers (it has happened), and the insistence of our political leaders of bringing religious claptrap into every political decision and public policy argument. But to raise a stink about “In God We Trust” being printed on our currency? To me, that seems an epic waste of time, energy, and resources that could be devoted to other things. Nobody pays attention to it and nobody cares. People will look at this thing and go, “Really? You’re upset over that, of all things? That’s pathetic.” And where does that leave everyone who doesn’t believe? Right back where we started.

Pick your battles, guys. And sure as hell don’t pick stupid ones.